For decades, an open top Jeep was the ultimate love-it-or-hate-it vehicular proposition.
Buyers who signed on the dotted line were willing to put up with a buckboard ride, guesswork handling and all the refinements of a Donner party-approved Conestoga wagon. Over the years, however, Jeep has slowly introduced both off road capability and on road refinement into the Wrangler - two attributes generally considered diametrically opposed.
A newly shoehorned-in V6 engine has made the Wrangler better than ever for 2012, so we decided to put a few miles on a well-equipped model to see how it fares as a daily driver and weekend warrior.
What is it?
Even though it looks and feels like a niche product, Wrangler's sales numbers indicate otherwise. Occasionally - especially late last year when a new powerplant arrived - it's Chrysler's best-selling model behind the Ram pickup range.
That's really saying something for a vehicle that as recently as a couple of years ago was best described as agricultural. But the winds of change are blowing hard in Auburn Hills (and Milan, from where Chrysler parent Fiat is wiring money faster than Grandma can be duped by a Nigerian scammer). Last year, the Wrangler got a decent interior for the first time, well, ever, and for 2012 it gains the company's new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6.
Most Wranglers are four-door Unlimited models optioned up with a Mercedes-Benz-sourced five-speed automatic (one of the last DaimlerChrysler remnants), but our plucky short wheelbase Wrangler Sahara had the standard six-speed manual.
Three Wrangler grades are available, although Jeep regularly offers plenty of special edition models. Anchoring the low end of the lineup is the still rather well-optioned Sport, while the plusher Sahara sits in the middle and the zombie-ready Rubicon with its locking differentials and automatic disconnecting swaybars tops the range.
Our tester was optioned with a body-colored hard top, leather seats (in a Wrangler!) and navigation. Other bolt-ons available include side airbags, a dual top group that includes both soft and hard covers and a limited slip rear differential.
What's it up against?
Wrangler's only real rival is the Toyota Land Cruiser
FJ40-channeling FJ Cruiser, which isn't available with a removable top. Granted, you could buy a Sawzall and yell "hey ya'll, watch this!" But that would probably void your warranty.
The long wheelbase Wrangler Unlimited can also feasibly square off against the still-rugged Toyota 4Runner
, which still offers real off road credibility.
How does it look?
Looking a little more cartoonish than its predecessors thanks to its oversized fender flares, the latest Wrangler is very clearly a Jeep. Intact design elements are highlighted by the brand's signature seven-slot grille flanked by round headlamps, but this four-by-four's side profile is unmistakably Wrangler.
The Sahara package includes a pair of irritatingly intrusive running boards (they'd be gone before we even left the dealership), as well as classy 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in Bridgestone all-terrain tires. Painted fender flares further set it apart, although they're also optional on the Rubicon.
More than a few passersby said that our short wheelbase Sahara, with its painted flares and matching hardtop, was a dead ringer for the non-U.S.-market Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen. We'd agree and we'd also consider that a compliment since the three-door G-Wagen not sold here is positively bad-ass
And on the inside?
Wrangers have never been about interior comfort, but a 2011 model year upgrade really addressed this age-old complaint. With virtually no changes for 2012, the Wrangler carries over with its best dashboard ever, although a new seat design is due for 2013.
Almost car-like in its curviness, the dashboard is simple yet sufficiently rugged to be in a Jeep. Drivers look through Chrysler's excellent line-wide three-spoke steering wheel at clear, simple gauges. Topping the center stack is the automaker's dated but still effective Garmin-mapped navigation, which gives way to power window switches and a trio of climate control knobs. Only the large number of switch blanks (even more excessive on lesser-spec Wranglers) would be out of place on a far more luxury-oriented vehicle.
We found our Wrangler's leather-covered front thrones to be a bit lacking in overall comfort (not to mention actual leather since only the very center-most sections are covered in hide rather than vinyl). Hopefully the 2013 will rectify this situation. Also, the absence of standard side airbags seems a bit unusual for a 2012 model vehicle.
The second row is easy enough to access for flexible passengers, but it's not a place for regular use. The rear seat folds flat and then flops up against the driver and passenger seats to enlarge the cargo area, but we wish the backrest would stay flat both for storage and to keep the tall rear headrests from blocking the view out.
Soft materials are few and far between and that seems just fine given that the Wrangler is still ready to be hosed out after a day in the muck.
But does it go?
What a difference a model year makes! Wrangler's old, minivan-sourced 3.8-liter V6 was by far its weakest link, so just about anything could be an improvement. But Chrysler's new 3.6-liter V6, rated here at 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft. of torque, is a massive step forward.
Capable of propelling the Wrangler to 60 mph from a complete stop in around 7 seconds, this new mill is just about everything we could ever ask for in a Wrangler this side of a unicorn-built 40 mpg HEMI V8.
Even with our tester's 3.21 rear axle ratio (a zippier but thirstier 3.73 is optional), the Wrangler akin to a mountain goat wearing running shoes. Highway merging, once a "wait, wait, wait... there it is" experience, is now a drama-free event. In fact, we found ourselves slipping the six-speed manual into top gear without even realizing it since there's ample power in any gear as long as the revs are above about 2,000 rpm. At 3,500 rpm, we noticed a muted, snarly growl make its way through the bulkhead, but the V6 was quiet otherwise.
And that's something we can say for the rest of the Wrangler experience, at least considering the limited sound deadening and brick-like proportions. Jeep engineers have done a remarkable job making the Wrangler pleasantly quiet on a highway trip, at least with the hard top. We haven't spent enough time with a soft top model to say just how much louder it is, however.
Handling remains deliberate but predictable. At highway speeds, the Wrangler is ready to wander into the next lane during heavy gusts of wind, although this latest model is much more stable than its predecessors. One look at the Wrangler's tall ground clearance is enough to confirm that it will feel more than a little top-heavy when thrown through a canyon road. Choose the unpaved route.
Our tester's short wheelbase made itself known over choppy pavement, where its motions were a bit more extreme. A long-travel suspension made it remarkably tolerable over the most heavily pockmarked blacktop we found, but we can't deny that the longer wheelbase Wrangler Unlimited is the better riding model of the two.
Wranglers are meant to go off road, and our tester absolutely excelled in this regard. Substantial ground clearance and big tires combined with excellent approach, departure and breakover angles to make it essentially unstoppable. Hardcore rock crawling will require a lift kit and bigger wheels, but just about anyone looking to take a brand new, $33,000 vehicle off road will find that Wrangler's capability exceeds their ability. The Wrangler is one of few vehicles that has become more
off road-capable over the years.
That all of this ruggedness and (relative) daily driver comfort is capable of achieving more than 22 mpg on the highway and 19 mpg in mixed driving in our hands is nothing short of impressive. Officially, the EPA pegs things at 17/21 mpg (and 18 mpg combined), but we exceeded those numbers.
Compromises are almost a thing of the past for the Jeep Wrangler
Why you would buy it:
You've patiently waited for the best Jeep Wrangler ever. Here it is.
Why you wouldn't:
Mud and rocks are not your thing, city slicker.
Leftlane's bottom line
Until now, Jeep Wranglers were third vehicle toys for all but the most masochistic drivers among us.
With a new, more powerful and more efficient V6 under the Wrangler's hood, it has been transformed into a vehicle we certainly wouldn't mind driving every day - especially if our Saturdays were spent exploring where the pavement ends.
2012 Jeep Wrangler Sahara
base price, $27,970. As tested, $32,805.
Leather seats, $900; Connectivity Group, $385; Body-color hardtop, $1,715; Navigation, $1,035; Destination, $800
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.